Judge Erick Harper likes to look at the pretty animals.
Long before there was Indiana Jones, there was Allan Quartermain.
At what point does a literary adaptation cease to be an adaptation and become just a brand name? H. Rider Haggard's adventure novel King Solomon's Mines has thrilled readers for over a century. In 1950, someone made a film entitled King Solomon's Mines, but I assure you, any similarities are purely coincidental.
Facts of the Case
Proper English lady Elizabeth Curtis (Deborah Kerr, The King and I, From Here to Eternity, The End of the Affair) needs help finding her lost husband. Henry Curtis ventured into the unexplored wilds of Africa some years ago and was never seen again; the only clue as to his whereabouts is a copy of a map supposedly showing the location of a diamond mine hidden far in the African interior—the legendary source of King Solomon's wealth.
There is only one man who can help Mrs. Curtis find her husband—the legendary explorer and big game hunter Allan Quartermain (Stewart Granger, The Prisoner of Zenda, Scaramouche, North to Alaska). Quartermain, bored with the safari business and weary of his rich but shallow clientele, contemplates a return to England for good. Mrs. Curtis's offer of the fabulous sum of £5,000 convinces him to stick around a while and at least attempt what he considers a fool's errand: the search for King Solomon's Mines.
Haggard's novel did more than any other work of fiction to entrench the mysteries of deepest Africa in the public mind. The movie version, more safari travelogue than coherent narrative, does much the same thing with the exotic animals of Africa. King Solomon's Mines, shot entirely on location in the former British colonies of Tanganyika, Kenya, and Uganda, as well as the Belgian Congo, was one of the first films to show these strange and wonderful creatures in glorious Technicolor. The wildlife footage is undeniably impressive, and must have been a treat on the big screen. The film is like a child's picture book or Noah's Ark set brought to life. The efforts involved in capturing such footage border on heroic. MGM sent their cast and crew on a 14,000 mile safari in temperatures in excess of 140 degrees Fahrenheit. The filmmakers also faced rampant tropical diseases, insects, and poisonous snakes, as well as a violent encounter with several Masai extras who got a bit carried away performing traditional war rituals for the film.
This film made Stewart Granger, formerly an obscure backup player, a superstar. The studio originally wanted Errol Flynn to star, but when he became busy with another major project, Granger landed the role of Allan Quartermain. It is not hard to see why this role shot him to stardom—Granger seems perfectly natural as Haggard's great adventurer, with just the right mix of self-assurance, subtle dry wit, and a hint of world-weariness. Although the Elizabeth Curtis character is an annoying and superfluous addition to the story, there can be no faulting Deborah Kerr, who plays the role with much the same spirit that she would bring to a not-too-dissimilar role in The King and I.
Special features on this disc consist of one (1) scratchy trailer, which is very degraded in terms of both visual and audio quality.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
No one claims that filmed adaptations of written works need to be 100 percent faithful to their source material. However, when changes are made, it seems to me that they generally fall into two categories. There are changes that are made to shorten stories so that they will run in the time allotted, and there are changes made to sharpen, simplify, and clarify stories so that they will work in a setting where the audience can't simply flip back a few pages or chapters as needed. The changes made to Haggard's novel fall into neither of those categories. First off, the production apparently had to deal with some strict MGM guidelines about running time, so efficiency in storytelling was a must. I'm not entirely sure how that leads one to include countless minutes of random animal footage in a film with a scant 103 minute running time. At times the movie feels more like a National Geographic documentary than an adventure film about lost treasure. Add to these some proto-environmentalist speeches by Granger as Quartermain, and these scenic interludes bring the entire movie to an abrupt halt. Even the most exciting sequence in the film—the stampede of a large herd of antelope-like animals—does nothing to further the narrative and serves only to incorporate more of the wildlife footage which cost MGM so much time and money.
The problems don't end with animal footage run amok. I'm not sure how leaving out several important characters and plot points and then subbing in a completely off-the-shelf romantic timewaster of a subplot helps in terms of either efficiency or clarity of storytelling. Kerr and Granger execute their interplay well, but it's nothing we haven't seen before. I'm not sure how the superfluous elephant-hunting prologue accomplishes anything that the later dialogue scene between Granger and Lowell Gilmore (The Picture of Dorian Gray) can't handle, other than finding a place to roll that beautiful elephant footage. I'm not sure why we spend all of our time with these characters getting to the fabled mines, and then about thirty seconds with them when they have ostensibly reached their goal.
Even these alterations are not necessarily bad in themselves. Again, no one expects a film and a book to be identical, given the different storytelling tools available in each medium. The original King Solomon's Mines would require considerable adaptation no matter who was filming it. On the other hand, the changes made to this particular version make for a poorly paced film that is less unique and less interesting than the original material.
Probably the most unfortunate changes befall the African characters of the various tribes. Haggard was a man of the 1800s to be certain; his African characters spoke an embarrassing sort of high colloquial pidgin English full of all sorts of grandiose rustic metaphors. He was hardly enlightened in his depiction of them, at least by modern standards. On the other hand, he depicted them as people, with complex and varied motivations and personalities. In the film version they become mere disposable extras, far more "other" than Haggard could possibly have made them. Part of this is the unfortunate voyeuristic effect of seeing them on film rather than reading about them on the printed page; the actual appearance of these people makes them far stranger to Western eyes than Haggard's prose ever could. This works in the film's truncated running time to reduce these people to mere plot devices at best, and set dressing at worst. The audience does not experience them as real characters. Instead, they become just one more exotic sight filmed in the course of MGM's safari.
The technical quality of the DVD is not much better. Yes, for the most part the spun-sugar Technicolor look is preserved relatively well. The image is sharp and clear on occasion, but is mostly stuck in a sort of hazy soft focus that obscures fine details. There are also considerable nicks and speckles throughout, as well as some occasional red or green halos. The audio is of course monaural, as is fitting for a film from 1950. Most sounds are clearly discernible and dialogue is generally easy to make out, but the audio overall sounds even more congested and flat than the norm for that era, and carries noticeably more hiss than most of the comparable tracks I've heard.
Given all the cast and crew endured just to make this film, a documentary of their travels would make for fascinating viewing. In fact, I'd wager that it would be far more interesting than the languid non-story presented here.
Despite my misgivings, however, it is only right to point out that King Solomon's Mines was nominated for three Oscars: Best Picture (?!), Best Cinematography, and Best Editing. It won all but the big enchilada, with good reason: there might be too much safari footage here, but it looks great and is incorporated into the film flawlessly.
Guilty! Like certain breakfast cereals, this movie should be forced to misspell key words in its title to avoid making false claims about its ingredients. Kyng Salamun's Mynz is hereby sentenced to the Wal-Mart bargain bin for the rest of its natural life.
On the other hand, I admit that I will probably keep this disc around for my son; I'm sure he's bound to love the footage of interesting animals.
We stand adjourned.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Theatrical Trailer
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